Dusty Heart: counting on each other musically


Dusty Heart perform in The Current's studio
Barbara Jean (left) and Molly Dean (right) of Dusty Heart (Nate Ryan | MPR)

The first time the women of Dusty Heart sang together, they knew their voices had enough chemistry to spark something new.

Barbara Jean and Molly Dean had each heard of the other as they built successful solo careers as Twin Cities singer/songwriters — but had never joined forces until Dean invited Jean over to her house to try out some harmonies. They sang a Townes Van Zandt tune they both knew, ("If I Needed You") and soon started making plans to plunge into working as a duo.

"We just were casual acquaintances. We had chatted about how fun it would be to do some harmonies. She was like, 'well, let's try it," said Jean. "It was awesome, right from the start. We just knew there was some real musical chemistry and especially some vocal chemistry there."

Now, they've spent a few years touring together, opening for Trampled by Turtles for an extended run and recording eight songs for their self-titled debut album, released back in March. This summer, Dusty Heart are set to play a string of local shows — including at the Dakota on June 21 with Jeffrey Foucault and Mears Park in St. Paul on July 12 — before they head to Denmark for their first European tour in August.

They grab time to write music by staying on a few extra days in tour stops, taking trips together or holing up in a Wisconsin cabin without running water — and now end up talking on the phone to each other about their dogs, as Jean told an intimate crowd at a recent St. Paul house show. They have grown into something different as a duo. Jean plays fiddle, banjo and viola, while Dean plays guitar, and the pair's harmonies and poetic lines really do bring out goosebumps.

"When you come together, it's going to naturally take a new shape, and that's something that we've seen over the past kind of year or so, writing together," said Dean, who sang on A Prairie Home Companion and in electronic pop duo Moon & Pollution with producer Graham O'Brien before she started collaborating with Jean.

"It's been really organic. I don't feel like we've forced anything," added Jean, who learned to play fiddle from her grandma and spent years in Grand Marais before settling in Minneapolis. "It was like, okay — we're approaching this as Dusty Heart, and somehow really naturally managed to land on this sound that is different for both of us than we were doing before, and it's kind of become its own thing."

In their song "Broke Down," which was inspired in part by Jean's car getting totalled in a middle of the night hit and run when it was parked in front of her house, they sing, harmonizing throughout, "Who will you be when you're not counting on me?" They seem to have figured out how to count on each other musically.

A shared intuition is one of their greatest strengths, besides their layered voices, the pair said. "We definitely, in this collaboration, kind of pull that intention from each other musically, and we really play with that well," said Dean. "I trust what Barbara is doing completely."

The two also draw each other out on stage, Jean said. "There's always times when you start to unravel, maybe you drop a chord, or get confused about where you are, or you forget a lyric," she said. "Something we've noticed in those moments is that immediately the other person kind of picks up and brings you back. It's a really fun thing — it's like, 'oh, sh-t, I'm going south,' and then Molly's right there, stronger than ever. It's just enough to sort of bring you back into the fold in a way."

As solo artists, they never had that, she said.


Dusty Heart's website

Dusty Heart perform with Jeffrey Foucault in the Radio Heartland studio, airing June 21 at noon.

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2 Photos

  • Dusty Heart perform in The Current's studio
    Molly Dean (left) and Barbara Jean (right) of Dusty Heart (Nate Ryan | MPR)
  • Dusty Heart perform in The Current's studio
    Molly Dean (left) and Barbara Jean (right) of Dusty Heart (Nate Ryan | MPR)